Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s Catholic Sex-Abuse Report Gets a Fact-Check
Catholic journalist Peter Steinfels analyzes the recent findings in an essay.
NEW YORK CITY — The 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report on Catholic clergy sex abuse didn’t get the thorough scrutiny it deserved, and both readers and reporters have been too accepting of the “sensational charges” it made, says veteran Catholic journalist Peter Steinfels.
In a lengthy essay published this week by Commonweal, Steinfels argued that many of the report’s charges are “grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate and unjust.”
Steinfels told CNA he wrote the essay because “I saw it as required by [my] vocation as a reporter and editor to get at the truth.”
“The report’s recounting of crimes and sins by abusing priests shocked me, as they should any sensitive person and especially a Catholic,” he said. “But they did not surprise me, having followed this story for 30 years. I was surprised by some of [the] Catholic reaction, as though they had only now become aware of this kind of abuse and its devastating impact.”
Steinfels, a professor emeritus at Fordham University, is a former editor of Commonweal magazine and a former religion columnist for The New York Times.
In his Jan. 9 essay, “The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems,” Steinfels considers various aspects of the report and the reaction to it.
He said most public reaction was based on “the heated language and awful examples of the first 12 pages” of a report that was said to contain up to 884 or 1,356 pages.
“And when I read those sweeping, ‘take-no-prisoners’ charges about bishops and other Church officials across seven-plus decades, without distinction — that ‘all’ victims were ‘brushed aside,’ and Church leaders ‘did nothing’ while ‘priests were raping little boys and girls,’ I said to myself, ‘this really deserves fact-checking.’”
After examining the report in detail, he found that “while there were indeed real failures of Church leadership over that long timespan, the report’s extreme charges were not substantiated by its own contents.”
The grand jury report, released Aug. 14, was written by 23 grand jurors who spent 18 months investigating six Pennsylvania dioceses with the help of the FBI, examining half a million pages of documents in the process. The six dioceses were Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.
It claimed to have identified more than 1,000 victims of 301 credibly accused priests and presented a devastating portrait of alleged efforts by Church authorities to ignore, obscure or cover up allegations — either to protect accused priests or to spare the Church scandal.
Steinfels cites “the hard reality that not many people have actually read the report, let alone read it critically.” Due to the report’s length, journalists and commentators were dependent upon “established scripts of what a story is about” from Church officials or victims’ advocates.
He focused on the charge that “all” of the abuse victims in the report “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by Church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all.” The report introduction charged: “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.”
This charge “is contradicted by material found in the report itself — if one actually reads it carefully. It is contradicted by testimony submitted to the grand jury but ignored — and, I believe, by evidence that the grand jury never pursued.”
The grand jury could have reached “precise, accurate, informing and hard-hitting findings about what different Church leaders did and did not do, what was regularly done in some places and some decades and not in others,” he said. “It could have confirmed and corrected much that we think we know about the causes and prevention of the sexual abuse of young people.”
“Instead the report chose a tack more suited to our hyperbolic, bumper-sticker, post-truth environment with its pronouncements about immigrant rapists and murderers, witch hunts and deep-state conspiracies,” Steinfels charged, arguing that a desire for fact-checking should be applied to the report’s denunciation of the Catholic dioceses just as if it came from a demagogic politician or media personality.
Grand juries don’t determine guilt or innocence, but whether there is sufficient grounds for an indictment and trial. They hear evidence in secret without representation from those investigated.
“And in practice, they operate almost completely under the direction of a local, state or federal prosecutor, a district attorney or attorney general, whose conclusions they almost invariably rubber-stamp,” said Steinfels.
When grand juries release indictments, they are treated as the first step in a process, but when they release investigative reports, these reports are treated as “at once an accusation and a final condemnation,” whose potential damage is “incalculable,” wrote Steinfels, citing jurist Stanley H. Fuld. While many people raise “perfectly legitimate questions” about bishop accountability, many overlook questions about grand juries’ accountability.
He faulted the report for its lack of numerical analysis, like a failure to calculate the number of men in the priesthood in these dioceses since 1945 to add insight about the prevalence of sex abuse among Catholic priests.
“There are no efforts to discern statistical patterns in the ages of abusers, the rates of abuse over time, the actions of law enforcement, or changes in responses by Church officials,” he said. “Nor are there comparisons to other institutions. One naturally wonders what a 70-to-80-year scrutiny of sex abuse in public schools or juvenile penal facilities would find.”
The report’s authors seem to discount both upward and downward trends in sex abuse by Catholic clergy.
“If we are to believe the findings of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, it increased in the latter 1960s, spiked in the ’70s, and declined in the ’80s,” said Steinfels.
The report erroneously attributed to Cardinal Donald Wuerl the phrase “circle of secrecy,” which was found scribbled on a rejected 1993 request from an offending priest seeking to return to ministry. Cardinal Wuerl’s effort to correct this error before the report’s release was ignored, according to Steinfels.
The Catholic bishops’ efforts to address abuse, as in the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, are also poorly presented.
The report is written to “minimize or dismiss the Charter’s importance,” Steinfels wrote. It presents a “caricature” of history, failing to include any account of “the lengthy documents submitted to the grand jury by the six dioceses.”
“There is not the slightest indication, not the slightest, that the grand jury even sought to give serious attention to the kind of extensive, detailed testimony that the dioceses submitted regarding their current policies and programs” regarding abuse prevention and reporting.
Steinfels gave particular attention to the grand jury report’s treatment of the Diocese of Erie, comparing it to other in-depth reports on sexual abuse there.
The grand jury report claims every diocese hid sex abuse but “contains scant evidence of Erie Church officials dissuading people from taking sex-abuse charges to the police, although one can assume that Catholic deference to clerical authority and the culture’s general sexual taboos once made dissuasion hardly necessary.” The report’s own profiles of accused sex abusers in the diocese indicate that the diocese had been “regularly reporting allegations of abuse” by 2002, when such reporting was officially made mandatory by the 2002 child-protection charter.
Steinfels also questioned the wisdom of naming accused priests, citing the case of Father Richard D. Lynch, who died in 2000. Years later, he is still listed by the Erie Diocese as “currently under investigation, and each is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise,” and was named in the grand jury report as an offender. In his own reading of the accusations, Steinfels said it could be tempting to treat Lynch’s lone accuser as “a disgruntled crank.”
The grand jury report’s expansive definition of criminal “hiding” of abuse, Steinfels said, makes it an “indisputable standard” to publicize the names of all credible or suspected abusers, alive or dead.
“If this is to be the case, it should not be unilaterally declared by a grand jury but established by statute and applied to all organizations rather than the Catholic Church alone,” he said.
The report comes in the context of a push to expand or create exemptions for the statutes of limitations on sex abuse for both criminal cases and civil lawsuits. The grand jury report recommended creating a retroactive two-year legal window allowing victims of child sex abuse to sue even if the statute of limitations has expired.
It follows after credible accusations of sex abuse of minors and seminarians against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, as well as explosive but difficult to confirm accusations of former papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that Pope Francis returned McCarrick to influence in Church.
The impact of the grand jury report on American Catholics was also a focus for Steinfels.
“Why the media were so amenable to uncritically echoing this story without investigation, and why Catholics in particular were so eager to seize on it to settle their internal differences, are important topics for further discussion,” he said.
Speaking to CNA, Steinfels had three suggestions.
“First, we should not let our quite understandable shame and horror at this misconduct bludgeon our critical faculties and the necessity of making distinctions, especially before and after 2002,” he said.
“Second, the dominant storyline, that Catholic bishops, fully aware that priests posed a peril to children, knowingly reassigned them to protect the abusers and the institutions’ reputation, is just too simple to the point of falsehood,” he added. “That happened, but there were lots of other factors and actors at play, both in the Church and the culture, that are essential, even if complicating, parts of the story.”
For bishops, “past failures and present pastoral responsibilities” limit what they can effectively say, he said. Therefore, “it becomes incumbent on responsible Catholic laypeople, perhaps joining hands across the Church issues that divide us, to demand better — from the media and from legal authorities.”